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A South African flag with the image of Nelson Mandela on it hangs on a fence along with a note and bouquets of flowers in front of the Town Hall in Cape Town December 6, 2013. South African anti-apartheid hero Mandela died peacefully at home in Johannesburg at the age of 95 on Thursday after months fighting a lung infection, leaving his nation and the world in mourning for a man revered as a moral giant. (STRINGER/REUTERS)
A South African flag with the image of Nelson Mandela on it hangs on a fence along with a note and bouquets of flowers in front of the Town Hall in Cape Town December 6, 2013. South African anti-apartheid hero Mandela died peacefully at home in Johannesburg at the age of 95 on Thursday after months fighting a lung infection, leaving his nation and the world in mourning for a man revered as a moral giant. (STRINGER/REUTERS)

LEGACY

Contenders for Mandela’s mantle face a different and dirtier landscape Add to ...

In the years ahead, South Africa is unlikely to see another moral beacon that shines as brightly as Nelson Mandela. The post-apartheid era has become too murky, too complex, too burdened by corruption and cynicism.

South Africa’s political landscape was once stark and clear. Apartheid was evil, and the greatest moral authority was the man who fought it most courageously, serving 27 years in prison yet still struggling for reconciliation and forgiveness.

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Today, in a far muddier landscape, the heroes too are muddier, and the sense of disillusionment is more pervasive. South Africa’s new leaders face a more complicated battle, against intractable issues of unemployment and inequality, in a skeptical era that exposes personal flaws more swiftly.

Here are three of the South African leaders who might have a chance to inherit Mr. Mandela’s mantle:

Desmond Tutu

The retired Anglican bishop and Nobel Peace Prize winner is still a vocal defender of human rights, an independent critic of government wrongdoing and a man of unquestioned integrity.

He continues to be hugely respected for his fight against apartheid and for his refusal to compromise his views in the new democratic era. He has campaigned tirelessly on issues of poverty, justice, AIDS, climate change, gay rights and global peace.

But he endures criticism from some quarters for his clashes with the ruling African National Congress and for his attacks on Israel’s policies.

Zwelinzima Vavi

The veteran leader of the country’s biggest union federation, the Congress of South African Trade Unions, has been a strong campaigner against corruption and political wrongdoing. Despite his federation’s alliance with the ANC, he has never hesitated to condemn it for its ethical failings and its internal violence. In one of his most famous speeches, he warned: “We are heading rapidly in the direction of a full-blown predator state in which a powerful corrupt and demagogic elite of political hyenas increasingly controls the state as a vehicle of accumulation.”

Yet some of the biggest trade unions in his organization have their own moral weaknesses: a history of strike violence and an often cozy relationship with the government and corporate employers.

Mamphela Ramphele

With her impeccable credentials from the anti-apartheid struggle and her history of medical work and philanthropy, Ms. Ramphele is widely admired in South Africa. She was one of the founders of the influential Black Consciousness Movement, along with her partner, Steve Biko, and suffered arrest and internal exile in the 1970s.

After the defeat of apartheid, she worked in academic and corporate life.

Now she is the founder of a new opposition party, gearing up to challenge the ANC in next year’s election – a career shift that has angered some South Africans who accuse her of being a corporate elitist because of her appointments in recent years at the World Bank and a major gold-mining company.

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